A handbook for science fiction readers and writers: a review of “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow“, by Yuval Noah Harari
The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed, wrote a popular science fiction writer.
The future is already here – it’s just not visible, because it’s hidden inside our heads, would have probably written Yuval Noah Harari, if he wanted to pun the famous line of William Gibson’s. Harari, born in 1976, gained fame in 2015 with his book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind“.
As the title may suggest, he is a a professional historian with a Ph.D. from Oxford. He is currently a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In “Homo Deus“ his next bestseller, Hariri makes the transition from the past history, addressed in the “Sapiens“, to the future history. The concept of future history is well known to any science fiction fan who has red Heinlein, Bujold, Bova or … well, it is a long list that deserves a study on its won. One thing in common among all these attempts is that the road to the future is long, winding, painful and… unpredictable.
“Homo Deus” tries to peek into the future, standing on the shoulders of the past. In three parts the book traces the ascent of the human kind from a powerless toy in the hands of the gods to an anthropogenic force of the nature and traces the age-old tendency of a gradual displacement of the deities by humans.
Why a science fiction reader or even a writer might find “Homo Deus” an interesting read? – I think there are two reasons.
The obvious one has to do with the interesting historical facts and social evolution theories, that Hariri describes. A good example are the theories why the religions have risen in the ancient times.
Hariri speculates that it has to do with the need to place some order in the strange and incomprehensible world that surrounded the people back then. The believe system made the world predictable and explainable, even though those explanation may seem irrational and contrived today. This theory is interesting in another aspect – today, as we approach the Singularity, the world is becoming just as strange and incomprehensible as it was back then for the prehistoric people, explaining the modern rise of the esoteric. We, as humans, have gone a full circle.
We learn from the book how important was the discovery of fire. It goes beyond the obvious implications to generate warmth and as a defense against wild animals. The fire was important also because it made possible the cooking. A chimpanzee spends about four hours per day to chew the raw food. Instead, human need an hour or so to process the cooked food. An interesting conversation might extend our lunch or dinner, but on the average the cooking let the human kind spend more time on making tools, art, war, love and self-improvement.
The second reason that made me think some genre readers and writers might want to get acquainted with “Homo Deus” has to do with the specific first-principle-based approach that the author has adopted. There is a saying that a physics student stranded on an uninhabited island should be able to recreate the entire modern physics based on the first principles.
Hariri follows, if not the same idea, then the same method, or at least he tries it. History and social sciences are not as clear cut logical disciplines as physics and math, so Hariri has a vastly more challenging task than Robinson-the-physics-major-student, but he tries to be as objective as possible. As a result many reviewers accuse him of being “cold” and “heartless”. I take these accusations as good signs, they mean Hariri has succeeded at least partially to shrug off the emotions.
This line or rather this method of though is most visible in the main conclusion of the book. “Homo Deus” starts as a list of human achievements: e.g. the famine and many diseases have been purged from a large part of the world; war is still with us, but it is rather an exception than a norm. If you don’t believe that any progress may have been made in those areas, just remember that a hundred years ago influenza killed more people than WWII and that in 10th century every human being on the planet, to the very last one, lived in an analog of the modern Somalia and Syria.
However, as the book marches through the human history, we find that the new powers and the new godlike status that we have reached soon turns on us. The last part of “Homo Deus” is a warning against human hubris. Just like the ancient Chinese wise man was pointing in that fable, drawing circles on the ground to represent the human knowledge – the more we know, the more we know that we don’t know.
The more we know, the less we understand, I would rephrase it.
The lack of understanding had not stopped humans from toying with great powers before, it is not likely it will stop us in the future either. We have already entered an era when machines do better than us not just the manual, boring and repetitive tasks, but they surpass us with an increasing speed in areas that seems forever reserved for humans. One example is medicine where computers even today do better diagnosis than human doctors, e.g. recognizing tumors. Car driving with all the object recognition required for that is another example. The advance in the big data analysis allows to predict our habits, our sexual orientation, our opinions (and our voting preferences!).
To this brave new world we will be just a set of algorithms, claims Hariri and concludes: we can be predicted and we can be simulated, perhaps at lower cost than it would take to sustain human life as we know it. I find here some parallels with the ideas of another futurist – Nick Bostrom from the University of Oxford.
Concluding, I think “Homo Deus” deserves a few days of the reader’s time. It is a dense book that offers an entertaining and a demanding reading experience at the same time, because of the rich historical and sociological background, because of its complex ideas. While it lacks the fictionalized layer, it can easily become the basis of a dozen science fiction novels with its predictions about the future of our civilization.
Valentin D. Ivanov
14.06.2018, Munich – 24.08.2018, Wien
Valentin D. Ivanov (born in the town of Burgas, Bulgaria in 1967) is a Bulgarian SF writer, essayist, reviewer and astronomer working at the European Southern Observatory, Garching bei München, Germany.
Previously, Valentin worked at the European Southern Observatory, mainly at the Cerro Paranal site, Chile. Among his primary research areas are the dynamics of star clusters, formation of stars, brown dwarfs, and exoplanets around such objects.
He had obtained his master degree in physics and astronomy at the University of Sofia in 1992.
He earned a PhD degree at the University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, U.S.A. in 2001.
He became a fellow at the European Southern Observatory, Cerro Paranal, Chile and since 2003 he has been a staff astronomer at the European Southern Observatory, Paranal where he is instrument scientist for the wide-field near-infrared camera VIRCAM mounted at the VISTA_(telescope).
In 2006, together with Kiril Dobrev, he has published a Science Fiction story collection in Bulgarian.
Valentin Ivanov and Ray Jayawardhana are two of the pioneers of the investigation of the planemos, a special cast of exoplanets.
They discovered the first double planemo Oph 162225-240515.
This discovery, came just before the debate about the 2006 planet definition, and posed the problem about the distinction between planets and low-mass stars (brown dwarfs).
Some of his English language SF stories, „Crossroads”, „How I saved the World”, „Job Interview” , “Unstable atmospheric circulation”, are online and also some of his reviews:
and essays :